Sacred narratives of American liberals and conservatives

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues American liberals and conservatives have powerful and “sacred” cultural narratives:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

I wonder at times if any public political debates are really about the particular issues at hand or are really proxy battles between these large cultural narratives.

It does seem easy to suggest that politicians and others needs to get outside of their own narratives and be able to compromise. However, there are benefits to being part of a larger narrative: the individual has purpose and meaning plus there is strong social support in being part of a larger group. If it were easy to cross these boundaries, people could do it more easily but there are also sanctions that groups can impose on members who stray. Current conditions suggest there may be little benefit for politicians who stick their neck out. See this recent story about how some members on both sides tried to reach a deal over the debt ceiling last summer but the larger parties helped it fall apart.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s